Directed by Nicholas Ray and released by Republic to theaters in 1954, Johnny Guitar takes place in a small western town where a saloon owner named Vienna (Joan Crawford) figures she'll get in on some land development action and build a new town once the railroad work in the area is completed. Vienna's got ties to some disreputable types, however - namely a gang lead by a hooligan known as The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a tough guy who seems to be in love with her. This brings Vienna to the attention of one Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who may or may not have a crush on the Kid, a woman who has a strong dislike of Vienna and as such has no qualms whatsoever about bringing in the law, in the form of the Sheriff (Frank Ferguson), to keep an eye on her. Emma obviously doesn't want Vienna to cash in on the hordes of people that the railroad will bring in and would vastly prefer it if she could get Vienna out of town for good.
Enter a man from Vienna's past, Johnny 'Guitar' Logan (Sterling Hayden), who arrives just in time to help out when Emma tries to frame Vienna for a stagecoach robbery that recently took place. Johnny has been conspicuously absent from Vienna's life for the last five years but now he's back while the Sheriff has to try to figure out who really robbed the stagecoach and why - inevitably, sparks fly between all involved.
Loaded with symbolism and allegorical scenes that were obviously intended to point fingers at the McCarthy era witch hunt that was tearing through the country around this time, Johnny Guitar is anything but a typical American western. The plot comes secondary to the motifs and more subtle leadings of the script which affords the game cast every opportunity to strut their stuff and sometimes to go over the top. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are both fantastic here, offering up powerhouse performances that leave each and every one of the male cast members in the dust. The fact that they reportedly did not get along at all on the shoot probably adds a level of realism to the tension in the scenes they share that wouldn't have been there otherwise and the film is all the better for it. In fact, most of what happens between the male characters - chiefly The Dancin' Kid and Johnny Guitar - is dull. The real reason to watch the story is for the ladies, and how many other westerns of the fifties can you say that about? Look for Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine in some small but fun supporting roles.
There are levels of veiled lesbian overtones running throughout the storyline and all sorts of interesting visuals to enjoy and try to decipher and on top of that, the whole thing is written more like a tense A Streetcar Named Desire play than your typical cowboys and six shooters action adventure tale. Johnny and Vienna have a key scene together in which they basically insist on lying to one another about what they've been up to during the five years that they were apart which is as telling as to their true motives as any other part of the movie. Production values almost seem to be an afterthought here, the town is so sparse it barely qualifies while unusually important wardrobe changes happen instantly (and off camera) but the titular theme song, sung by Peggy Lee, is pretty classic. The use of color is excellent as is the camera work and while this may have been made on the fast and cheap, all involved were experienced enough from past jobs that there's no way they didn't really realize what they were up to here. As such, we're left with a very interesting film not just because of what we see happen on screen but because of what it likely represented to many of those involved, Ray in particular.
Johnny Guitar looks good on DVD, presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio and in full color just as it was meant to be seen. Though more work probably could have been put into cleaning this material up based on a the few minor nicks and specks that pop up here and there, the source elements appear to have been well preserved. As such, detail is fairly solid and colors are well produced if sometimes noticeably faded. Black levels aren't quite perfect and are sometimes more of a dark grey but there are no issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement. All in all, the transfer here won't blow you away but they look pretty good for its age.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix on the DVD is fine. The levels are properly balanced, the dialogue is crisp and easy to follow and there are no noticeable issues with hiss or distortion to report. The film's score from composer Victor Young sounds nice and clean and adds some welcome dramatic flair to a few key scenes and some suspense to the action sequences as well. There are no alternate language options or subtitles of any kind provided.
There are no extras here save for a three and a half minute introduction to the movie hosted by Martin Scorsese in which the director makes a few interesting points about the importance of the film. Aside from that, we get menus and chapter stops but nothing more. Given all of the allegory and symbolism and interesting stories behind the movie, this one really should have been given a commentary track but that didn't happen.
Johnny Guitar is a really enjoyable film thanks to a fun and exciting story and some impressive performances. It's an odd picture when compared to the countless other American western films being churned out around the same time, but that's a big part of its appeal in the first place. Olive's DVD looks and sounds good if not completely great, but it really should have received more in the extras department than it got. Recommended, but more on the strength of the film and the decent transfer than anything else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.